Hilliard club hockey coach Wade Bartley is hoping his team's challenging schedule in the first half of the season will pay dividends in the second half.
The Wildcats are 13-12-2 overall after going 2-2 in the Midwest Thanksgiving Classic held Nov. 23-25 at Chiller North.
"We played some tougher competition on our non-league portion of the schedule to help us be better prepared in the long run," said Bartley, who is in his second season leading the program. "With the tougher competition and with us getting new leaders, we didn't play as well as we would have liked early. But now our experienced guys are stepping up and becoming more comfortable as leaders."
Last season, Hilliard finished 38-7-3 overall, won the Greater Columbus High School Club Hockey League championship and made its fifth consecutive appearance in the Buckeye Cup state tournament.
The Wildcats, whose roster is comprised mostly of players who attend the three Hilliard high schools, went 17-1-2 (36 points) in the six-team GCHSCHL last year to finish ahead of Newark (13-4-3, 29), Westerville (11-8-1, 23), Northeast (8-10-2, 18), PRPC (6-12-2, 14) and Athens (0-20, 0). The top four teams qualified for the Buckeye Cup.
Hilliard finished second in the Blue Jackets Cup last season, losing to Newark 4-3 in the final after falling to the Generals 5-4 in the winners' bracket final.
The Wildcats went on to lose to Jackson 3-2 in a shootout in a state semifinal. Newark beat Westerville 5-2 in the other semifinal before defeating Jackson 3-2 in the final to give the GCHSCHL its fourth state championship in the last five seasons.
The other GCHSCHL teams to win state titles during that stretch were Athens (2008), Newark (2009) and Northeast (2011).
"We were really fortunate last season to have a number of great older players," Bartley said. "That's why (the loss to Jackson) was rough. It was a tough loss and the returning guys remember that. They know they need to find ways to win the close ones this year."
Among the top returnees for Hilliard are senior forwards Kenyon Clevenger (Davidson) and Kyle Majher (Darby), senior defenseman E.J. Graf (Darby) and junior goaltender Mack Burton (Davidson).
Other key players include senior forwards Gus Oberdick (Columbus Alternative) and Thomas Wright (Darby), junior forward Kyle Antal (Davidson) and senior defensemen Alex Campbell (Davidson) and Landen Gruszewski (Davidson).
Graf is the team captain and Campbell and Majher are the assistant captains.
Other defensemen are juniors Tristan Fortner (Buckeye Online), Alec LaScola (Bradley) and Scott Starbuck (Bradley) and freshmen Greg Brown (Darby) and Mathew Riley (Davidson). Riley also sees time as a forward.
Other forwards are senior Travis Wright (Grove City), juniors Patrick Feldkamp (Ready) and Tyler Hernandez (Bradley), sophomores Daniel Brashear (Darby) and Jordan Coppess (Darby) and freshman Gage Akers (Darby).
The backup goalie is freshman Simo Huhtanen (Davidson).
"We've got a fast group of forwards with Kyle Antal, Gus Oberdick and Thomas Wright joining Clevenger and Majher," Bartley said. "Our top four defensemen are stronger than last year and goalkeeping is a strength.
"We've got all the pieces to be as solid, if not better, than last season. The most important thing is when you peak. You can take some lumps early as long as you're growing and learning. You want to make your drive late for the Blue Jackets Cup and the state."
In the Midwest Thanksgiving Classic, Hilliard lost to Upper Arlington 2-0 on Nov. 23 and beat Zionsville (Ind.) 6-0 and lost to Oakville (Ontario) Abbey Park 4-2 on Nov. 24 before defeating Westerville 7-2 on Nov. 25.
The Wildcats are 5-2 in the GCHSCHL and return to league play Friday, Nov. 30, against Northeast at OhioHealth Ice Haus.
Hilliard defeated Newark 7-3 in its league opener Oct. 19 and beat PRPC 4-2 on Oct. 26 before losing consecutive games to Westerville (2-1 on Oct. 27 and 4-3 on Nov. 2). The Wildcats rebounded to post consecutive wins over PRPC (6-0 on Nov. 4), Northeast (5-2 on Nov. 11) and Newark (7-2 on Nov. 15).
"I think we definitely have the possibility to return to state and win it all," Graf said. "We have a lot of new, young guys and we're a work in progress. But we're all playing hard and I think we'll see the development we need to have and the execution it takes to have success.
"When we really trust one another and all of us learn the system, we'll move the puck better and things will come more naturally for everybody."